Cross-national insights into social workers’ multi-dimensional moral agency when working with child abuse and neglect

Enni Mikkonen, Merja Laitinen, Anna Gupta, Anna Nikupeteri, Johanna Hurtig

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This paper analyses social workers’ moral agency in addressing child abuse and neglect. We argue that ethically sound social work requires the capacity to exercise strong, multidimensional moral agency. The contribution is based on a qualitative interpretative meta-synthesis of four studies representing different forms of child abuse and neglect in varied contexts. Drawing on our analysis, we identify three thematic categories of moral considerations in terms of social workers’ moral work in addressing child abuse and neglect: gender and generations, agencies and responsibilities, and families and communities. We then proceed to posit four dimensions of moral work in child and family social work – individual; cultural and communal; societal and political; and global – and argue that if they are to exercise strong moral agency, social workers must negotiate these intersecting contextual dimensions. Recognising the salience of these dimensions, how they increasingly intersect, and what this demands of social workers is necessary for the profession. Social workers must embrace individually sensitive, culturally translative, politically engaged and globally aware moral agency. This is crucial in elaborating context-sensitive practice that critically engages with moral complexities when working with individuals, families and communities.
Original languageEnglish
JournalQualitative Social Work
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jan 2020
MoEC publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • child abuse and neglect
  • child and family social work
  • Child protection
  • family
  • meta-synthesis
  • moral agency

Field of science

  • Social work

Citation for this output